Oxford dictionary defines hypochondria as ‘abnormal anxiety about one’s health’. However, the medical definition practically discounts the bodily illness as the basis. Oxford companion of body defines it as ‘a condition in which a person believes that he or she is ill when no objective signs of illness can be observed’. The Columbia Encyclopedia defines it as ‘a disorder characterized by an exaggeration of imagined or negligible physical ailment’.

A relative used to complain, any time of the day or night you meet her, about constipation, occasionally about gas problems and lack of sleep in the night. General practitioners (GP) came and GPs assured that some of these might be imaginary stuff though partly associated with an aging body, therefore, almost inevitable. Muscles lose flexibility making evacuation a bit of a struggle, lack of exercise and propensity to eat fried stuff causing indigestion and gas formation, and worse cases of insomnia are known. A triumvirate of common sense and inexpensive remedies – a laxative, an antacid and a tranquiliser before bed-time should do. But her arms looked increasingly thin, smile wan on a shrinking face, plaints more frequent and strident. Until one day, like a thunderclap, she announced that she had been having difficulty in swallowing food and even water. Her dysphagia was diagnosed as a consequence of a form of malignant thickening of her esophagus inner walls choking the food pipe. On hindsight, one could begin to understand the terror striking at her heart in the middle of the night when sleep would suddenly desert her for hours. And the need to communicate her anxiety.

Through out the illness, probing, diagnostic procedures and increasingly desperate firefighting, she was stoical and dignified. She had stopped talking about her illness and its manifestations. As if she felt graduated to a malady in respect of which her complaints were all too evident. There was no longer any need for her to persuade anybody that she was indeed suffering a real illness and not just visited by a mania of an old woman.

Next time you meet a person everybody loves to characterise as a hypochondriac, try being a little patient. Not every malaise one complains about is necessarily a psychological problem or due to ‘negligible physical ailment’.

Hypochondria may be a disease of the mind, being mindful of the diseases afflicting the body that might have spun it off in some cases may be a step towards improved sensitivity and alertness to our fellow beings which in some cases may mean a difference between life and death.

(This is an abridged and modified version of an earlier blog I had posted elsewhere)


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